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Cellphone Companies Will Share Your Location Data – Just Not With You

Cellphone Companies Will Share Your Location Data – Just Not With You

 

Written by Megha Rajagopalan

Cellphone companies hold onto your location information for years and routinely provide it to police and, in anonymized form, to outside companies.

As they note in their privacy policies, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all analyze your information to send you targeted ads for their own services or from outside companies. At least tens of thousands of times a year, they also hand cellphone location information to the FBI or police officers who have a court order.

But ProPublica discovered that there’s one person cell phone companies will not share your location information with: You.

We asked three ProPublica staffers and one friend to request their own geo-location data from the four largest cellphone providers. All four companies refused to provide it.

Here’s how they responded:

Verizon

On releasing location data to you: “Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber’s location information to law enforcement with that subscriber’s written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement— with your consent— but not directly to you.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “ Unless a customer consents to the release of information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, Verizon Wireless does not release information to law enforcement without appropriate legal process.” A spokesman said being more specific would “require us to share proprietary information.”

Sprint

On releasing location data to you: “We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.’ Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked’ numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders.”

AT&T

On releasing location data to you: “Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: A spokesman from AT&T declined to specifically address this question.

T-Mobile

On releasing location data to you: “No comment.”

On responding to requests from law enforcement: “For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders.”

––-

As location tracking by cell phone companies becomes increasingly accurate and widespread, the question of who your location data actually belongs to remains unresolved. Privacy activists in the U.S. say the law has not kept pace with developing technology and argue for more stringent privacy standards for cell phone companies. As Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania professor put it, “all of the rules are in a state of enormous uncertainty and flux.”

The Obama administration has maintained that mobile phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.” The administration has argued against more stringent standards for police and the FBI to obtain location data.

The FBI also says data collected by cell phones is not necessarily accurate enough to pose much of a threat to your privacy— for instance, in a strip mall, cell phone records may not show whether you are in a coffee shop or the apartment next door.

But that is quickly changing. Blaze said as the number of mobile phones continues to rise, cell phone companies are now installing thousands of small boxes known as microcells in crowded places like parking garages and shopping malls to enable them to provide better service. Microcells, he said, also enable the phone companies to record highly precise location data. While your phone is on, he said, it is constantly recording your location.

T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T all refused to disclose how many requests from law enforcement they receive.

Our idea to test whether cellphone companies will give users their own location data came from a German politician who successfully obtained his data last year from Deutsche Telekom. Consumers in Europe have greater protections.

This post was originally published ProPublica.

 

Related Stories:

Police Use of Cellphone Tracking Threatens Privacy

First Amendment Protected: Cell Phone Recordings of Police Are Legal

Own a Cell-Phone? Be Prepared To Be Tracked

 

Read more:

Photo: Ed Yourdon/flickr

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41 comments

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6:51PM PDT on Jun 29, 2012

I see nothing wrong with this. If you are kidnapped etc. it would help the police locate your position.

11:00PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Also be aware that if you have a newer model "smart phone", you can still be tracked by GPS even if you turn your phone OFF and take your battery OUT. There is a separate and completely independent "button" battery that maintains the operation of the GPS and "essential" features that certain agencies require. This "feature" is in many phones, already in most phones and is rolling out in the rest on an ongoing basis. Almost all Android models have this feature. Not sure about the iPhone as of yet. I'll stick with my plain vanilla voice call phone w/no frills, thank you. It's amazing what is being done behind the scenes in those "smart" phones, and who and where all that information is being sent to.

1:45PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Thanks for the info.

12:22PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

This is ridiculous..they prove your location information with criminals also....be aware..cell phone companies and the police may get good coverage for finding victims but the victims are victims of the cellphone companies themselves giving out private info out to criminal trackers and hackers.

12:17PM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

thanks for the info

9:26AM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

creeeeeeepy. Glad I usually have my cell phone off and use it to call people, not the other way around.

8:58AM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

why is my information not my property?

5:49AM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Reason #1 why I remove the battery from my cellphone the minute I land at JFK when visiting the US from the UK, and I only reinsert it to make scheduled calls to check in with people, or if I need the phone in an emergency.

As to all going on about GPS - this hasn't got anything to do with GPS. Cell phones can be located based on the cell tower or microcell a call, access to the Internet (via 3/4G, EDGE, etc.), or a SMS/MMS message goes through with a reasonable degree of accuracy. The same can also be achieved via wi-fi. (Hence Google Maps nagging to turn both GPS and wi-fi on "for greater accuracy".)

5:29AM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

WITH SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE MORE OF LACK OF PRIVACY .......SOCIALIST AMERICA HAS ALMOST REACHED FULL IMPLEMENTATION

2:43AM PDT on Jun 28, 2012

Hmmm ... I guess it's a case of "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're not being followed!"

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